Last Wednesday night I attended The Stranger’s Night of Genius for Literature. One out of a five-week series recognizing Seattle’s best of the best in film, music, the visual arts, performance, and literature, the event could go one of two ways.
Maybe people would shake hands and introduce themselves to their neighbors, like passengers on the same flight figuring it would be less awkward sleeping and drooling and tumbling over each other in the event of a water landing if we knew each other’s names. Or maybe it would be like any other reading. Authors wisecracking, shooting their deadpan stares out into the audience, and readers just happy to bask in the radiance of minds who’d invented alternative worlds for us to live in.
The first thing that took me by surprise were my nerves on the bus beforehand: my hands were shaking. By the time I climbed the museum steps and reached the lobby, sweat had broken out on my upper lip.
What the hell is this?
It shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. I mean, I’ve been this way all my life. As one of the gallery attendants asked me to check my enormous wheelie bag, the sweat spread to my underarms. I’ll be found out, I thought.
Found out for what?
Who knows? There’s always something.
That’s part of the terror of it. But I’m always sure I’m about to be parted from my bag and locked into a room with white walls somewhere and stared at for long hours.
I wonder if this is what comes from leaving the Mormon church. And being tailed by Mormon missionaries for the next five years. You develop paranoia. Not entirely without justification.
The second surprise was the red ticket they handed me when they drew a line through my name.
Once I got past check-in, I pretended to examine an installation of license plates until the sweat dried. Then I approached the two bartenders. I slid the red ticket over the counter. I gave them my best, I know I’m an idiot, but– smile. “So, what is this for?”
They both smiled. I think I’d been holding my breath for the last three minutes. “Your cocktail.” The one who’d smiled at me first, a pretty young woman in a white button-up and black hair, read me the menu. She praised the Smirnoff orange dreamsicle.
Still at a loss with alcohol if it’s not a white Russian, I ordered the dreamsicle. Then, I walked into an empty room off the main hall, picked a table beside the window, and opened a Stranger publication. But the U.S. is a strange country, and it was because of that dreamsicle in the plastic cup that I ended up thinking of my 20-year-old friend from dance class who couldn’t join me at the Frye events.
“What if I just don’t drink?” She’d asked me.
“I don’t think that’s how it works.” I rattled the ice cubes in my cup and studied what was left of the vodka. It’s because of you, vodka. Because of Puritans. Because of Prohibition.
I’d had slightly too much to drink.
I also had been followed by my kin. Three other people had drifted in, taken solitary tables, and whipped out smartphones and dreamsicles.
Seeing that my work here was done, I tossed my cup and picked my way carefully over the tiles back out to the main hall. Too many people. Slightly too buzzed to risk interacting with a stranger, I asked permission from one of the gallery attendants (yes, I always ask permission). And then I roamed the gallery.
The happiest part was when I wandered into a darkened room with rows of empty seats. I settled in at the end of the second row. I studied the paintings along the wall in the blue light. I appreciated the bamboo floor. I let the alcohol work its way through my system.
The Stranger had selected three finalists for the Literature award:
- Maged Zaher, a self-described poet of the city whose work shifts between Seattle and Cairo, from text-message love affairs to the metaphysics of globalization: “politics is history, unfolded in time”
- Neal Stephenson, a best-selling author whom Zaher called “one of the best science fiction writers in the world” and who also struck me as one of the most erudite yet approachable authors I’ve ever heard read
- The APRIL small press festival, which is actually in March
But even with such diverse finalists, the theme of the night quickly became the nature of writers. Stephenson called us “antisocial”. And I think it was Paul Constant, whose book reviews are a mainstay of the Stranger, who called us “the saddest and loneliest of the artists.” Though it may have been Christopher Frizzelle. I blame my confusion on the dreamsicle. Stephenson also said that in comparison to rock concerts or the Academy Awards, readings are just “sad”.
Which is sadly true.
Stephenson and Constant worked the topic with the expertise of a comedy team.
Constant: “So you’re part of a writing community?”
Stephenson: “To the extent that writers are capable of forming community.”
Constant: “So you pretty much just sit around a table?”
Stephenson: “Pretty much.”
He even got in a crack about cocktail parties being an introvert’s nightmare.
But it was beautifully effective. The irony of writers laughing together about writers being antisocial recluses infused the evening with a sense of shared delight. The secret was out. Most of us, in some deep recess of our soul, didn’t really want to be there. What a relief.
But here we were. And I like to think that pointed to a subtler truth about writers.
We’re just introverts. It doesn’t mean we dislike people. In fact, writers spend most of our time inventing, remembering, and pondering the vagaries of other human beings. In the absence of people, we love people. We also miss them. As Holden Caulfield cautions in the last lines of The Catcher in the Rye, if you end up telling stories, “you start missing everybody.”
I think this is enormously useful in the creative process. The tension of wanting to be around people–but having difficulty being around people is melancholic, in the Romantic sense. Wabi-sabi.
The incompleteness of a silent room. A lonely writer.
It’s immensely productive.
Because the void must be filled. And writing fills it.
On my way out of the building–much as on my way through it–I provided the perfect supporting case study for Stephenson’s and Constant’s claims about the antisocial writer. I saw several people I knew. I didn’t approach them to say hello. I simply picked up my bag from the front desk and passed through the front doors and walked to the bus stop through the rain.
But I also went home and wrote. And wrote and wrote about all the people I miss.